Jeff Gaona played basketball for De Smet Jesuit High School, St. Louis University and Bellarmine University. A challenge, for sure, but nothing compared with what he faced June 22 in the St. Paul Gym in Fenton.
Gaona was encircled by about 35 mostly pint-sized players at the parish's basketball camp, each determined to take the ball from him. They succeeded in the comic-relief effort twice, and as a loser, Gaona had to do 10 push-ups each time to the chants of his victors.
So, what's Gaona, the co-owner of St. Louis Mortgage Consultants, doing on the basketball court in the middle of a busy workday afternoon for four straight days, knowing that he has to catch up on his work in the evening?
"I should be at work now," Gaona acknowledged. But his love of basketball, his parish and the kids took precedence.
"I played my whole life," he said. "I have two kids who go to school here. I enjoy coaching them at all levels, CYC and select. I like to see them have fun and succeed."
St. Paul is known for its soccer program — it didn't have a gym when Gaona went to school there — but he wants to spread the "basketball bug" as well. "The younger you start playing and liking it, the better you're going to be," Gaona said.
His approach at the camp avoids "cut-throat competitiveness" and teaches how to be a good teammate — cheering for each other and sharing the ball, for example. "We're just showing them that sports can be a good time," he said.
St. Paul started the Junior Panthers league at the parish five years ago, an instructional program for first- and second-graders, a prelude to the Catholic Youth Apostolate's CYC program league play, and Gaona was on board as a coach. The summer camp began last year, geared toward the younger group but open to first- through eighth-graders. In a relaxed atmosphere, the players work on skill development in ball handling, passing, shooting techniques, footwork, rebounding, defensive strategies and more.
Austin Althoff, a fifth-grader at Kellison Elementary School in Fenton, said he'd much rather be at the camp than sitting at home. He enjoyed the drills and learned proper shooting form and the importance of being balanced by keeping his legs spread out. "I liked the knock-out game and the guy who taught us tricks — dribbling the ball through his legs and behind his back," Austin said, referring to Bob McCormack, coach of the high school team at St. Louis Priory. McCormack, a former player at CBC High School and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, put on a ball-handling show with tricks he learned with the St. Louis Zips youth team.
Sheila Davis, a St. Paul parishioner waiting to pick up her third-grader, Elizabeth, finds it's best to keep her children busy in the summer. Elizabeth enjoys basketball, having played in the Junior Panthers, and the camp was a good fit. "She's having a ball," Davis said, unaware of the phrase's tie-in to the sport.
Jimmy Cahill of St. Catherine Laboure Parish brought his third-grader, Sal, to the camp after Sal attended a similar camp in the morning at St. John Vianney High School. Sal's dad was impressed with the coaches' knowledge but also how enjoyable they made the camp. Cahill's advice to children is simple.
"If it's not fun, don't play," he said.
Michelle Hanock, basketball director for the athletic association at St. Paul and a physical education teacher at St. Cecilia School, knows the joy of playing basketball and, shouting phrases such as "Woo-hoo, nice job," did her best to spread it. "I had a lot of fun memories, and I want the kids to have the same experiences," she said.
Each day began and ended with prayer and the camp stressed CYC rules and the values the CYC and parish teach.
Some information for this story was provided by St. Louis Review photography intern Kathryn Ziesig.